Review: War in a Time of Peace

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War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — William B Pollock and His Company

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William B. Pollock

During my student days in the 1970’s, a student group I was part of met regularly at the Pollock House, often in the living room just inside the front door. At that time, the ROTC program had offices and classrooms upstairs. Years later, when the building had been converted to the Wick-Pollock Inn, we celebrated my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary there. Now, of course, it serves as the president’s residence for Jim and Ellen Tressel.

The house was built in 1897 as the home of Margaret Wick, the widow of Paul Wick and her daughter Mary. When Mary married Porter Pollock, the son of William B. Pollock whose company bore his name, they moved into and expanded the residence. In 1950, the Wick family donated the house to what was then Youngstown College.

But who was William Browning Pollock and what did he contribute to Youngstown history? It might be said that the iron and steel industry was in his blood, and that much of the machinery of iron and steel production was made by him. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1832, the son of a well-known machinist and engineer. At an early age, he began operating blast furnaces in the Shenango and Mahoning Valleys. Before long, he was building blast furnaces, first in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania and as far away as Chicago and St. Louis.

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Cyclopedia of Modern Shop Practice.  Chicago:  American Technical Society, 1907.

In 1863, Pollock recognized that the iron industry of Youngstown needed a plant to fabricate the boilers, furnaces, ovens and other equipment needed for iron production. The company was initially called the Mahoning Boiler Works but quickly adopted the name William B. Pollock Company. A publication of the company on its 75th anniversary in 1939, The William B. Pollock Company presents the seventy-five year history of its contribution to the advancement of the art of iron and steel makingstates that the company had been involved in the manufacture of more than 75 new blast furnaces, and rebuilt 447 blast furnaces, accounting for most of the blast furnaces in the United States at that time. Pollock created ingenious methods of increasing the capacity of blast furnaces, resulting in higher productivity.

Eventually, the company expanded into other products involved in iron and steel making including ladles and the cinder (for slag) and hot metal cars that transported molten iron from one part of a plant to another, allowing processing into steel without re-smelting.

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 A “hot metal” train exhibit at the Youngstown Steel Heritage Museum; part of President Rick Rowlands’ and other Youngstown Steel Heritage Foundation members’ collection of heavy equipment salvaged during the drastic downturn in Youngstown, Ohio’s steel industry and economy. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Porter Pollock work alongside his father for many years in leading the company until his father passed away in 1914. Porter’s diary reflected the work ethic held by him and his father.

“Honest work, honestly represented, honestly sold are the rules followed and tend to a high standard as well as a high rate of efficiency.”

When Porter Pollock passed away in 1931, his son William B. Pollock II took over. The expertise in metal plating allowed them to expand business into manufacturing oil tanker rail cars and even metal caissons for a New York skyscraper.

Over time, they moved from Basin Street to South Market Street to their final location on off Andrews Ave. An article in 1963 celebrated its 100th anniversary as a company, concluding with these words:

“On the strength of its first century’s achievements. you feel that its next 100 years really will be ‘a breeze.’ ”

In 1963, no one saw the demise of the major steel companies in Youngstown. The closure of these plants was followed by the closure of the William B. Pollock Company in 1983. Two specialty steel companies acquired parts of the facility in 1986, operating for a time until it went vacant. In 2011 Brilex Industries acquired the plant, bringing machining, fabricating, and assembly to this site once again.

The William B. Pollock Company didn’t make steel. They made the machinery that made the whole enterprise possible. For 120 years. In Youngstown.

Holding Your Books

Embed from Getty Images

Have you ever thought about how you hold your books? Most of the time, I suspect our book holding maneuvers are subconscious as we shift a book from one hand to another, or re-position a book or ourselves.

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Ladakh” by Christopher Michel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I didn’t think about this so much in the past as I do now. Depending on the print size, my lap is too far away for these aging eyes and holding a large book in my hands gets tiring. Or I will cross my leg, and prop the book on my lower leg, until I uncross and recross my legs the other way. Resting the book on a table is another solution, but that means sitting at a table, hunch over if it is flat, or I hold the book propped up on the table

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Photo by r._.f from Pexels

I’ve always been a bit of a fidgeter. Sitting in a chair for very long and I have to move around. Sometimes I read standing. Sometimes laying down–until I fall asleep. Sometimes even laying on the floor.

Then there is the challenge of holding the book open. Many will not lie flat and so need to be held open.

Yet for some weird reason, I still usually prefer print to e-books, except for walking on my treadmill.

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Apparently people have been devising ways to cope with these challenges for years. Winston Churchill often worked and read at the standing desk pictured above–the original hands free reading. The desk here holds several open at once. I’ve seen some use drafting tables in this way. You just need some kind of ledge at the bottom to keep the books from sliding off.

Alternately, people have used book pillows to rest the book closer than a lap. There are acrylic book stands that can be placed on tables or wood book podiums that can be placed on a table.

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Photo via Pikrepo licensed under CC0 1.0

A variety of bookholders have been created for those who like to read in bed. These vary from lab desks and pillow desks to various bed tables, and even bedside tables like those whose in hospitals where the base is wheeled and slides under the bed and the stand tilts and can be adjusted to the ideal height and angle to “consume” your book. Here is a BookwormGadgets post that features a number of these products.

There is still the problem of holding your book open hands free, ideally in a way where it is easy to turn the page when you are ready, but secure. While some better books lie open of themselves, and are easily held, many either have to be held by one or two hands, and hardbound books can be awkward.

There is a Flipklip book holder that holds the book open but allows you to turn pages easily. There are various other page clips which are great at holding books open but need to be removed as you turn pages. If you are reading on flat surfaces, there are various types of bookweights, which probably work better than the stapler I sometimes use to hold a book open when I’m writing a review. Another BookwormGadgets post describes a number of these products.

Maybe this all seems fussy, and there are times when the book, the chair, the lighting are perfect, allowing us to lose ourselves. However, the existence of all these products suggest that I’m not the only one who finds holding a book in my hands or on my lap is not always optimal. All the items we have devised actually are quite ingenious, and many diehard readers end up using one or more.

It also reminds me of what an ergonomically exquisite thing an e-reader is–easily held, allowing one to set fonts. lightweight, and capable of holding not one book but thousands. It makes me wonder why so many of us still love print books–and reminds me what peculiar creatures we bibliophiles are.

 

Review: A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman

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A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman (A Week in the Life series), Holly Beers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A creative rendering of what life was like for a woman from the lower free classes in Ephesus during the period when Paul was preaching in the city.

This book grabs your attention from the very first pages as the main fictional character, a woman from the poorer laboring classes of Ephesus, Anthia, assists her friend Dorema in the perilous experience of childbirth. Something goes badly wrong, and Dorema, her best friend cannot deliver her child despite potions and prayers and the ministrations of her midwife. Dorema exhales her final breath looking blankly past Anthia.

Like other books in this series, we go through a week, in this case with Anthia. She is also pregnant with her second child. She lives a demanding routine of caring for an aging father who soils himself, lives in a crowded one room dwelling with her family (imagine intimacy!), tries to please a husband who doesn’t hesitate to physically abuse her at any threat to his honor, hauls water, cooks what food there is on a coal brazier, and works in the market selling whatever fish her husband catches. The book describes emptying chamber pots and using public latrines open to both sexes. Amid all this she begins bleeding, her baby stops kicking and her pleas to the gods seem of little avail.

Then she hears of this person called Paul who is preaching. And healing. Healing comes close when a handkerchief from Paul heals the deadly fever of her neighbors son. Eventually she joins a gathering of the Way, as they call themselves, for a dinner and time of worship–a dinner where those of higher classes, lower classes, and slaves eat and worship together without distinctions–where slaves are even served by their betters. They even pray for her.

The portrayal helps us understand the confrontation between the worshipers of Artemis, the goddess of Ephesus, and the followers of Jesus, whom Paul proclaims. How will those like the silversmiths who fashion idols respond? How will Anthia’s husband respond? And how will this nascent community meet the challenges?

As with other books in the series, there are images and sidebars on cultural backgrounds for things like marriage, food, pregnancy and labor, Artemis, housing, sanitation, cosmetics, honor and shame and other topics that come up in the narrative. We come to understand what embodied life at its most elemental was like in a city like Ephesus.

We also grasp what it was like for the first Christians to engage this culture with its social strata, its relations between men and women, its ideas of honor and shame, and its gods. Holly Beers helps us understand how powerful, how radically different both the message and the new community of the Way appeared to the culture, and also how strangely attractive it was in the ways it broke down barriers between classes, and men and women. Read this book to enrich your reading of Acts, Ephesians and Paul’s letters to Timothy–or just to read a good story.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Black Authors

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Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the national holiday in the U.S. when the Civil Rights leader is remembered. February is Black History Month. On Monday, I asked my readers on the Facebook Bob on Books page for their recommendation of Black authors. It is quite a list, and even so, far from complete. Here is the list with names linked to Wikipedia articles so you can look up their works.

This is a sizable, but to be sure, incomplete list. Different names may be controversial to different people. Part of the adventure of reading is to read those who are different or disagree with you. I’m struck with the diversity of genres represented among these writers–from poetry to science fiction, from advocacy to autobiography (often the same thing). African-Americans were among our earliest Americans and their contribution to our literature is immense. The coming month might be a good time to explore the work of at least one black writer you haven’t read, or a title you’ve always wanted to get to. And if there is someone I’ve left out, let me know so I can add them to the list!

Review: Gospel Allegiance

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Gospel AllegianceMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that our traditional ideas of salvation by faith reflect an inadequate gospel that fails to call people to allegiance to King Jesus.

A couple years ago, Matthew Bates provoked a conversation about the nature of the gospel and faith with his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone (review). Bates’ contention is that our traditional statements about salvation by faith fails to capture a critically important element of the gospel, that the coming of Jesus was the coming of a king, whose purpose was to call people from the nations to a new allegiance to Christ as king.

This book expands on this argument, designed for a pastoral rather than theological audience. He engages other authors such as John MacArthur and John Piper who have written about these matters, noting both where they are in agreement and where their understanding of gospel, faith, and works may be deficient. He proposes that our typical rendering of gospel presentations like the “Roman road” are inadequate.

In addition to the pastoral focus, Bates proposes that this book focuses more on the gospel, defining it more precisely and thoroughly. He goes further in his discussion of faith, grace and works. He argues that this is not a different gospel but a re-framing of the gospel. Finally, this study primarily focuses on Paul.

A key to understanding Bates’ main idea is this phrase in Romans 16:26 which says, “…so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.” Bates sees pistis, the word for “faith” as more than simply a mental or emotional disposition but rather “faith-obedience” or allegiance, and also emphasizes the idea that Christ’s purpose was to call the nations (“Gentiles”) to obedient allegiance to him.

Bates shows in this book how this is not salvation by works and yet how works are saving in the idea of allegiance to the King embodied in a life of obedience. He show how these are distinct in the writing of Paul from works of the law. His discussion of grace is perhaps the most challenging part of the book, both in terms of understanding and in terms of the ideas he presents. He argues that grace may be both unmerited and require bodily reciprocation, and by this, argues against “free grace” movements as cheap and false grace.

In his final chapter, he connects allegiance back to the Great Commission and Jesus call to make disciples. He argues:

   Any gospel that makes discipleship optional or additional is a false gospel. Gospel allegiance helps us to understand why faith in Jesus, discipleship, and obedience to his commands to hand in hand. In traditional articulations that place saving faith in opposition to works and the law, it is hard to find a positive place for Jesus’s commands. Not so if saving faith is allegiance to the king.

One of the distinctions that I am not at ease with is the distinction he makes between our being saved and our final salvation. He proposes that forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, and glory, are benefits of our final salvation. He speaks of all of these in the present as potential benefits. I would contend that they are already realized in our lives by grace in part, while our full realization of these will be in glory.

The value of Bates’ work is in his idea of allegiance and how it integrates faith, grace, and obedience, often set in conflict with each other. Furthermore, allegiance reminds us of the ultimate claim Jesus has on our lives above any other allegiances, involving our implicit and embodied obedience. It speaks as a challenge to allegiances to present-day Caesar’s and their empires, and all other false gods. It challenges versions of cheap grace that allow people to rationalize persisting in unrepented sin or refusing to advance in one’s discipleship and embodied holiness, claiming they have “believed” and are saved by grace. What most impressed me in this book is that it was clear that Bates’ concerns for gospel allegiance arise from a passion for the glory of Christ and a desire to see people truly converted, and set upon lives of discipleship. He models the kind of concern that every minister of the gospel ought have to be sure we have not run in vain or labored in vain (Philippians 2:16).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Why I Remember Dr. King

Civil_Rights_March_on_Washington,_D.C._(Dr._Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Mathew_Ahmann_in_a_crowd.)_-_NARA_-_542015_-_Restoration

King at the Civil Rights March — Washington, DC, By Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

I am spending half of my day today remembering the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I suspect that there will be some who read this who will wonder why I would do this, particularly if it is a holiday and I can do anything I want.

To be honest, part of the reason is that I sing in a community choir has been invited to sing in both citywide and local celebrations–I’m spending a good part of the morning singing. Our director is an African-American man, a gifted musician steeped in the tradition of the music of the Black church, much of which became the music sung during the Civil Rights movement. The music is different from that of my church upbringing. It teaches me to exuberantly praise, to cry out in lament, to endure for the long haul, to hope and aspire.

As a white man, I will never fully understand what it is to be black. Days like this are part of a process of understanding more. The songs, as they sink into my being, put me in touch with the long struggle of a people and invite me to join in that struggle. The speakers invite me into a different set of stories from those I ordinarily hear. I admit that there is much more to understanding what it is to be black than joining in a one day celebration. It is one of many steps. I always learn something.

The day honors the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was this rare combination of Christian who was a prophet, a peacemaker, and a martyr.

  • Prophets not only foretell, they “forth tell.” They call people forth to God’s highest ideals and expose when we are less than that. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice at the lunch counter, on the bus, or at the voting booth threatened our whole fabric of justice, our aspirations as a nation for “liberty and justice for all.”
  • He was a peacemaker. He said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” He taught church people to put these principles into practice with non-violent resistance. For the same reason, he opposed the Vietnam war.
  • He was a martyr, not merely for the sake of his own people. He understood the tremendous soul-burden racism placed upon whites as well as blacks. He said, “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

His life and death are worth remembering for these and many other things. It always does me well to remember the noblest words and deeds of others, rather than the tawdry words and deeds that are so much a part of our news.

I can imagine someone at this point interjecting with the imperfections of King’s life. I’ve read the biographies and know them well. I won’t offer any justifications. But it seems that we only call up these things against those we don’t like, and overlook them in those we favor. Worse, we overlook them in ourselves. King admitted “the evil in the best of us.” Do we? Perhaps it is not a bad thing to engage in some self-examination on a day like this. What is the log in my own eye that needs removing?

I use this day to remind myself of the reason Dr. King is known to us, the log in our national eye, as it were. Our sins around how we displaced one people and forcibly enslaved another, and after Emancipation, have persisted for another 150 years in finding ways to oppress our Black fellow citizens have been called “America’s original sin.” Even a bloody Civil War failed to bring us to lasting repentance. Abraham Lincoln seemed to understand better than most how this war was a judgment of God upon the nation:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address).

I tremble as I think of God’s judgment that we failed to heed the scourge of the Civil War and have perpetuated for another 150 years in different ways the oppression of slavery, and often nurtured racial hatred in our hearts. The lament songs that ask “how long” speak powerfully to me, calling me to persist in prayer for repentance from our national sin, and the healing of our racial divisions.

But I cannot stop there. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of hope. On the night before he died he said,

I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

If a man like King, who had faced so much opposition and evil and hate could continue to hope, why shouldn’t I? To gather with others across racial boundaries on this day is to remind ourselves of that hope, the “Dream,” and to strengthen our resolve to persist in that hope. It cannot be just another “kumbayah” moment, quickly forgotten. It means continuing to stand together to seek justice in our communities, in our prison systems, and in loving resistance against structures that try to perpetuate white supremacy in a country formed around the “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of all of our people.

All this is why I remember Dr. King today.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Youngstown Playhouse

Do your remember going on field trips to the Youngstown Playhouse as a kid? I do. I can’t remember the plays we watched but I remember the Cat Lady who came out to welcome us and talked to us before the plays.

The Youngstown Playhouse has a long history in Youngstown. In the 1920’s, Youngstown was a stopover place for national stars like the Barrymores, Al Jolson, and Walter Hampden. Area residents wanted a more ongoing opportunity for live theatre based in and open for community participation. The Youngstown Playhouse website says “In the early 1920’s, four ladies from Rodef Sholom began reading plays for their own enjoyment.”  In 1927, several drama organizations came together and formed the Youngstown Players.

Originally, they performed in a converted barn at Arlington Street and Lincoln Avenue. People from every walk of life participated. The key ingredient was hard work, which people in Youngstown knew how to do. Talent followed.

In 1942, the Playhouse moved to an abandoned theatre on Market Street. Then, in 1959 they moved to their new (and current) home on 600 Playhouse Lane off Glenwood Avenue.

Over the years, the Playhouse has been the starting point for a number of artists. Two of the better known are actress Elizabeth Hartman, who starred with Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue, and John DeMain, a Grammy award winning symphony conductor, who I wrote about recently in a post on the Youngstown Symphony, where he served as acting director during the 1980’s. He currently is the music director for the Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony Orchestra.

The Playhouse is still going strong, offering a season of nine productions in 2019-2020. They offer a Summer Theatre Intensive for aspiring actors under 18 as well, other children’s educational programming, as well as opportunities for community involvement as volunteers, as actors in productions and patrons. The Playhouse receives no taxpayer funding and relies exclusively on revenues from grants, donations, and ticket sales–no small feat. James McClellan is the current operations manager and Johnny Peccano the technical coordinator.

Fostering Civil Spaces on Social Media

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Social Media: Image by Gerd Altman via Pixabay, [CC0 1.0]

Several good friends have recently announced their intention to leave Facebook until after the U.S. national elections in November. Their reason is their own mental health. The level of argument, vicious attacks, false or misleading claims, and fake news are putting off increasing numbers who once thought these sights to be a fun and social way to keep up with friends. Is that the way it has to be?

In recent years I’ve been increasingly involved both as a participant and a page administrator on Facebook and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good has been conversations, particularly around books, where people have shared about their love of books, what they love reading, what they don’t (and these can be polar opposites), and discussions where people learn from each other, and about new genres of literature and authors they might like and learn from.

The bad have been arguments where people go beyond reasoned and vigorous exchanges to slogans, epithets, and dismissive remarks in increasingly heated exchanges. Others often just shut down and leave.

The ugly comes when people resort to personal attacks on the character of each other, or of other figures, or even bullying and abusive behaviors.

What have I learned about creating civil spaces?

  1. If you are expecting perfection, forget it. People have bad days. Some people only want to assert an idea without defending it. People misunderstand each other. There are “trolls” and downright mean people. The truth is, we have bad days with the people who are closest to us.
  2. Probably the best thing that can be done is to have clear rules about posting online. Social media researcher J. Nathan Matias has found that clear posting rules with clear consequences both reduce harassment and increase participation. On my book page, I bar any personal attacks, profanity, and bullying, and any “marketing” posts for books (open that door and that is all you get). Others can include things like off-topic posting. Positively, I encourage respectful dialogue, and focusing on our common love of books. I think it doesn’t hurt to remind people why a group exists.
  3. Moderators or page administrators have to be willing to enforce rules. This is easier when you have them. It can mean shutting down toxic threads, deleting posts that violate your rules, and posting reminders about page or group rules when needed. I try to send a friendly message to those who break rules the first time. With most people that’s enough. Often they even apologize, especially when they realize they are dealing with a person rather than an algorithm. The only person I ever banned was someone who called another member “stupid.” When I messaged him about it, he called me “stupid.” NEVER call page admins names!
  4. Watch “vigorous” interactions closely. I try to let them go as long as they don’t degenerate to name-calling or personal attacks.
  5. Learn the limit’s of your particular page or group’s capacity and exceed them at your peril! Sometimes you discover them when you exceed them! I’ve found you can talk religion as long as you don’t go negative on others. Politics–forget it in this climate. Controversial issues? Sometimes, the issue is how “in your face” the post or comment is to opposing positions.
  6. On pages I curate, I try to mix it up to allow for diversity–serious with light, posts appealing to a variety of interests, posts from diverse authors and sources, with a healthy dose of humor–even if it is lame! While we have basic page standards, I want people to know that we don’t want this to be an echo chamber but a place where different people can meet.
  7. I try to promote engagement. Sometimes over a hundred people respond to the “Question of the Day” on my page, and many others check out the contributions.
  8. I avoid commenting on many posts except when I’m directly asked a question. I want people to have a sense that the page is about all of us, not just me.

And a few things about other pages and groups:

  1. Know and follow the page rules and never cross the admins.
  2. Engage what others post as well as respond when people engage you. Be friendly, and a little humor never hurts as long as it is not belittling to the other person.
  3. Don’t be that person who talks incessantly, or dominates posts.
  4. Learn to distinguish between things you disagree with, or are different from your experience, and genuinely objectionable behavior where you are disrespected. Don’t get into it with with such folks–just message the admin. They may not immediately spot your interaction if there is a lot of activity. This is what they get paid the big bucks for (usually nothing!).

Mostly, it comes down to the things that make for good conversations in any setting. Funny how we forget these when we are online. That, I suppose, is where the rules really help.

One final thing. Kindness never hurts.  Often when there is an unexpectedly strong response, there is often more going on than meets the eye. For example, someone responded very strongly to an article I posted on vaccines one time. As we interacted, I discovered the reason why. The person had lost a family member to an extreme reaction to the vaccine. The conversation moved from a discussion that could be controversial to a connection with the deep pain that comes from loss. A saying that is variously attributed is perhaps a good thing to remember in all our online interactions:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Review: The Conscience

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The Conscience (Inner Land, Volume 2), Eberhard Arnold. Walden: NY: Plough Publishing, 2019 (first published in German in 1936).

Summary: A short treatise on the conscience, what it is, what it’s witness is, how it functions apart from God, and how it may be restored.

Conscience. It strikes me that growing up, and in my early Christian journey, I heard much of conscience. These days, not so much. So I was intrigued to receive this little book, only 76 pages, part of a longer series called “Inner Land,” by German philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bruderhof movement.

It is a profound study in part because of where it was written, Nazi Germany, and when it was published, in 1936, shortly after Arnold’s death in 1935. While the work is not openly critical of Hitler, Arnold notes the corrosive effects upon conscience of a society without God, where conscience is formed in a spiritual vacuum.

The book consists of two parts. The first focuses on the conscience and its witness, the focus of which is to serve as a watchman, warning us of all the things detrimental to the inner life of the spirit. It exposes our selfishness and calls us into community. Under God, it brings us great joy. Under sin, it torments and calls us to repentance. It calls us to integrity and justice. Apart from God the conscience is unreliable, finding its bearings only in our rebirth. Christ is the one who restores and purifies through his sacrifice and his Spirit. This opens the way for our consciences to reflect the image of God as we continue to gaze intently on Christ.

The second part considers the restored conscience and the outworking of this in one’s life. At the beginning of this section he sketches the contours of the restored conscience:

   The conscience craves for the very essence of truth. It demands an ultimate, indisputable goal. Strength of conscience, a growing certainty and clarity, is to be found only where peace rules as unity, only where justice rules as brotherliness, only where joy rules as pure and all-inclusive love.

He speaks trenchantly here about the redemption of our sexuality as one expression of good conscience–neither suppression nor unbridled lust but Christian marriages marked by union, self-giving, and the blessing of children. All areas of life come under the purified conscience–our possessions, our business dealings, our approach to conflict, our politics. Christians are people of the conscience set free.

He comes closest here to addressing the issue of Germany under Hitler, not by attacking Hitler but by discussing the choices of conscience one faces in such times. He writes:

Jesus Christ is the only leader [Führer] who leads to freedom. He does not bring a disguised bondage. He does nothing against the free will of the human spirit. He rouses the free will to do that (and only that) which every truth-loving conscience must urge it to do. “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is the free power for free action. 

Anyone who wants to hand over the responsibility for his own actions to a leader [Führer]–anyone who wants to be a human leader–has betrayed freedom. He has become the slave of a human being. His enslaved conscience will be brought to utter ruin if this mis-leader calls to a freedom that is no freedom. All leaders whose authority is merely human ruin people’s consciences.

The book raises the critical issue for me that something will form the conscience of each of us–either in purity, justice, and freedom, or in slavery, impurity, and unreliability. Arnold suggests that it is either Christ or culture that will form us, the former leading us into freedom, the latter ultimately mis-leading us. Arnold recognized how even religious people might be misled, when they seek in human leaders what may only be found in Christ. It raises the question of whether we might be doing the same in looking to a succession of political saviors of the left or right, that ultimately will mis-lead us. Might it not be that the formation of the consciences of a citizenry might prove to be far more important than electing the “right” person to the integrity of both the church, and the country?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.